By MARK MARONEY
City Patrolman Jonathan Deprenda allegedly leap-frogged past cars in front of him, drove as fast as 101 mph on the wrong side of the double-yellow-lined East Third Street and collided with an innocent motorist, killing him in a fiery explosion.
The crash occurred nearly one minute after a radio call from the Lycoming County 911 Center indicated the pursuit to which Deprenda was headed was over.
Those are the circumstances laid out by state police that led Lycoming County District Attorney Eric R. Linhardt to file charges of vehicular homicide, involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment against Deprenda in the death of James David Robinson.
Robinson, 42, turned in front of the oncoming officer’s path as Deprenda was en route to assist another officer involved in a chase, Linhardt told a news conference Tuesday morning.
Twenty-two seconds before the crash, Officer Eric Derr radioed that he had the suspect at gunpoint near Almond Street and Grampian Boulevard, Linhardt said.
“During a police pursuit, law enforcement must balance our duty to control crime and apprehend offenders with our responsibility to ensure the safety of all parties who potentially might be involved – the safety of police officers, the safety of suspects, the safety of victims, the safety of bystanders and the safety of the community, Linhardt said. “This balancing test has formed the cornerstone of pursuit policies, training and practice over the past several decades.”
The crash occurred about 6:48 p.m. Jan. 12 at East Third and Railway streets and was witnessed by people in vehicles behind Robinson’s, state Police Cpl. Larue Stelene said in an affidavit.
Deprenda, who has been suspended from the department with pay, was arraigned Tuesday morning in front of District Judge Allen P. Page III and released on $25,000 bail.
Linhardt said he considered the evidence against Deprenda shows recklessness.
The fatal collision between a police cruiser and a civilian car may influence the manner in which police respond in pursuits from this point forward, city police said.
“I am quite confident law enforcement is operating differently,” said police Capt. Timothy Miller.
Under the state vehicle code, a police officer may engage in a vehicle pursuit only if the officer does not endanger life or property. Otherwise, he or she may be charged with reckless operation of the vehicle, Linhardt said.
Deprenda applied the brakes on his cruiser and at the time of the collision was traveling 88 mph, Stelene said in the affidavit. Stelene also was at the news conference.
Just prior to that, Linhardt said Deprenda was driving at speeds of up to 101 mph as he was passing cars.
“It goes back to a balanced and reasonable approach,” Linhardt said when asked what speeds police should travel in residential zones when on pursuit of lawbreakers. “It’s not a black-and-white issue,” Linhardt said. “There needs to be a balance of the needs of law enforcement with public safety.”
Linhardt said crashes occur regularly during high-speed chases, even though officers activate their sirens and emergency lights, as Deprenda had done.
“Only 24 percent of drivers can hear and determine from which direction a police car and siren are traveling,” Linhardt said. “In the case of excessive speed, some drivers won’t hear the siren at all because they are just behind or catching up to the sound. Innocent third-party drivers who do not hear the sound simply do not have time to react,” he said.
Besides Robinson, Deprenda endangered other individuals in vehicles behind Robinson’s, police said.
The witnesses told police they saw Robinson turn into Deprenda’s path. One could see the flashing emergency lights and pulled over, but another said she didn’t hear the siren until Deprenda’s car zipped by.
Linhardt quoted FBI statistics that indicate one person dies every day in a police vehicle pursuit. On average, one police officer is killed every 11 weeks. Innocent third-parties who happen to be in the way constitute 42 percent of the uninvolved persons killed or injured in police pursuits, he said.
City Police Chief Gregory A. Foresman said Deprenda displayed a “terrible error in judgment.”
The speed and manner in which he operated the cruiser was “unacceptable,” Foresman said.
Of Deprenda’s paid suspension, Mayor Gabriel J. Campana said he could not be suspended without pay without first being found guilty in a court of law.
Campana declined to say how much the officer is being paid. The Sun-Gazette filed a request for the information under the state’s Right-to-Know Law. The city budget indicates an officer with Deprenda’s years of experience would earn about $50,000 a year.
“The police department has a duty to protect the public but also to seek the truth,” Campana said. “No one is above the law.”
An internal investigation by the city police will review Deprenda’s actions to see if he violated departmental procedures and to determine if there is any discipline, according to Foresman. The court proceedings are separate from any internal review.
“We will go to great lengths to see that justice is served,” Campana said.
City Solicitor Norm Lubin said Deprenda has retained private counsel. “He would have to retain private counsel,” Lubin said. “The city would not represent him in a criminal matter.”
Deprenda, if convicted, could face a maximum sentence of seven years for homicide by vehicle, five years for involuntary manslaughter and two years for reckless endangerment, Linhardt said.
“Those are the maximums allowed by law which may or may not relate to applicable guidelines reviewed by court if and when he is convicted,” he said.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Feb. 7 before Page.